By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
“All great truths are based on blasphemies”- Bernard Shaw
From the year 590 to 1517 the Roman Catholic Church had dominated the Western World. Securely entrenched in power the pope and the priests had successfully brainwashed an ignorant population to accept everything the hierarchy did. Having got this power and hold over its followers the Church unleashed a regime of corruption that was designed to pamper the senses of the Holy Rulers. This was a period when the Catholic Church was absolutely sick. The eventual recovery came during the period of the reformation that saw revolt from the bungled and the botched below who couldn’t tolerate the developments any longer. Until that liberation the people did have a hard time. I begin to wonder if similar developments are now taking place in the Buddha sasana of Sri Lanka.
It may be instructive for us to recall the full scale of corruption in the Church of the Middle Ages. This will serve as an analogy for the contemporary Buddhist situation in Lanka and help us in properly modelling the possible size of the trend that’s on now over there.
The root of the corruption in the church was a conveniently enabling ideological theory concocted by the pope. In the 14th century Pope Boniface the v11 declared: ”we declare, state define and pronounce that for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pope is altogether necessary for salvation (Caper, The Church in History). People followed suite on the theological basis that the Pope was God’s representative on earth. What more, but to do or die? Those who disobeyed were damned Salvation.
“Salvation, taken from the hands of God, fell into those of the priests, who set themselves in the place of our Lord. Souls thirsting for pardon were no more to look to heaven, but to the Church, and above all to its pretended head. To these blinded souls the Roman pontiff was God. Hence the greatness of the popes – hence unutterable abuses” (D’aubigne).
Among the myriad corrupt practices introduced was the system of indulgences that prevailed whereby the church could grant individual forgiveness for any sin by charging the offender a fee “Incest, if not detected, was to cost five groats; and six, if it was known. There was a stated price for murder, infanticide, adultery, perjury, burglary, etc. ‘O disgrace of Rome!’ exclaims Claude d’Espence, a Roman divine: and we may add, O disgrace of human nature! For we can utter no reproach against Rome that does not recoil on man himself. Rome is human nature exalted in some of its worst propensities” (D’aubigne
Celibacy for clergy became Roman Church law in 1079. This mandate tempted all kinds of immorality. The abodes of the clergy were often dens of corruption. It was a common sight to see priests frequenting the taverns, gambling, and having orgies with quarrels and blasphemy. Many of the clergy kept mistresses, and convents became houses of ill fame. In many places the people were delighted at seeing a priest keep a mistress, that the married women might be safe from his seductions.
“In many places the priest paid the bishop a regular tax for the women with whom he lived, and for each child he had by her. A German bishop said publically one day, at a great entertainment, that in one year eleven thousand priests had presented themselves before him for that purpose. It is Erasmus who relates this” (D’aubigne).
Crossing over to the present scene in Lanka let us remind ourselves that there is an ideological root here, too, inasmuch as there was a theological root for the church’s corruption. That ideology is that the sanga are the ultimate saviours of the Buddhist Sinhala nation. The sanga bears a prime responsibility to go to the streets, and to do what they think is right just in order to “save” our nation. The nation or ‘jathiya ‘here is the Sinhala and the ‘aagama’ or religion is just one-Buddhism. This ideological root flows from the great con in the Mahawamsa that journalist Sharmini Serasinghe so eloquently explained to CT readers. The call to ‘rata, jathiya, aagama” is a reflection of the Mahawanse myth. It is totally out of line to the reality of the multicultural Sri Lankan social fabric we have today. It contradicts the workplace experiences of young men and women in Lanka.
Besides this ideological root, one observes that our politicians keep manipulating their electorate by using these saffron saviours. This compares well with the politicians of the Middle Ages who similarly exploited the powerful priests in order to keep themselves in power even as second fiddle to the priestly order. The politico-religious combination is deadly dynamite. The installation of monks in parliament on a legitimate basis began seriously with the UPFA regime. Most of these parliamentary clergy have little qualms about partaking in every power and perk dished out to them by lay politicians in the political partnership- cars; luxury houses; and often playing the role of power brokers or lobbyists for big business and so on.
We remember how the politico-sanga axis had been first formed under SWRD’s misguided xenophobic parochialism. The power of the sanga as power broker was then symbolized by Buddha Rakkhita who ended up in jail over the murder of SWRD. The public emotional outcry had been so great then that for many a decade a monk was not seen on the political stage, The nexus was revived by the Mahinda Rajapakse during his election campaign for presidency. While Rajapakse survives on the ideological belief that he (single-handed) “saved” the country from the Tiger terrorism the political clout of the monk thrives on the Mahawanse myth. The hold of power is founded on myth.
The vast mass of the Buddhist population would say little against abusive monks for one reason, namely that they respect the saffron cloth or sivura. Oftentimes, we cling to the self-delusive myth that the sivura has to be respected even if its wearer is a scoundrel. Didn’t we see how some religious folk worshipped the London Sangha Nayake just before the latter was cast into jail for sexually abusing a child? The court heard the minor say how the monk had dragged her to the inner sanctum of the temple and penetrated her with one painful force ‘like the shaft of a knife’ right in the presence of the Buddha image. A similar incident had taken place in Perth some time ago. Another one recently in Sri Lanka. What happens daily in Lanka is quickly shelved before reaching authorities. Even if it reaches authorities (like the ganja case) it is disregarded by an immaculately independent justice system!
If you think that the above were isolated instances just take a look at the body language of politically protesting monks in Colombo today. Didn’t you see the video of the attack on a church when a monk simply threw a stone and tried to surreptitiously hide his gruesome act? I once witnessed a young monk walking out of a video parlour in Bamabalapitiya with something under his arm. As I walked in to rent-out a video the shop owner told me that that monk had carried away a porno video!
The unfortunate thing is that unlike in the case of the church there is no hierarchy controlling or disciplining monks. Such a control is inimical to the freedom in Buddhism. However, all Buddhists should be alerted to ensure that our Sanga will not take the full course of the path of corruption outlined above in the study case of the church of the Middle Ages. In the last analysis it is only an alert population that could save any institution. Such an alert population significantly exists in the developed West so that lesser pranks are seen from church personnel today. Will a Lankan socially conscious elite grow up and initiate a similar Reformation in the sanga? High time it did.
In a lot of what I have stated above I may be accused of blasphemy but accusers beware of the Bernard Shaw quote. To cleanse and clean a wound one must have the wound exposed in the full light of the day.